US jury sentences Somali pirates to life
Three convicted Somali pirates escaped the death penalty Friday when a US jury sentenced them to life in prison for the high-seas murder of four Americans in the Indian Ocean.
Federal prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Ahmed Muse Salad, 25, Abukar Osman Beyle, 20, and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar, 29, for the February 2011 shooting deaths aboard a 58-foot (17.7-meter) yacht.
The boat's owners Scott Adam, 70, and Jean Adam, 66, both retirees from the Los Angeles suburb of Marina del Rey, had set off from New Zealand to fulfill a lifelong dream of sailing around the world.
Their friends Bob Riggle, 67, and Phyllis Macay of Seattle had joined them for the ill-fated Indian Ocean leg.
They were the first Americans killed in a dramatic outbreak of Somali-based maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa that has since waned significantly in the face of stepped-up international naval patrols.
After two days of deliberation in Norfolk, Virginia — home to the US Navy's Atlantic fleet — the jury of seven women and five men on Friday returned a sentence of life imprisonment, court sources said.
"Four Americans were taken hostage, terrorized and then murdered," said Neil MacBride, the US district attorney for eastern Virginia, in a statement.
"Life in prison is reserved for those who commit heinous crimes, and the jury today decided the execution of four innocent Americans on the high seas meets that high bar."
Salad's lawyer Michael Nachmanoff told AFP the jurors were unanimous in their decision.
"We're very grateful they spared the lives of our clients," he said, adding that the three men would serve their time in the federal prison system without parole.
The trio had earlier been found guilty of all 26 charges against them, including piracy, which carries a mandatory life sentence, and 22 other counts eligible for the death penalty.
Nearly two dozen people have been convicted in US courts as part of a global crackdown on Somali-linked piracy — but this was the first case in the United States in which the death penalty was sought.
Salad, Beyle and Abrar were among 19 Somali pirates operating from a commandeered Yemeni mother ship in the Indian Ocean on the lookout for a vessel to capture in return for a ransom, prosecutors said.
The group had armed itself with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, boarding ladders and a high-speed skiff with which to pounce onto their intended target.
On February 18, 2011, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off the coast of Oman, they easily captured the Quest with the intention of taking it to Somalia and holding the American hostages for ransom.
But within two days US warships — including the aircraft carrier Enterprise — caught up with the yacht. Defense lawyers say Adam urged the navy by radio to keep back so as not to trigger a violent reaction from his captors.
Two of the pirates eventually boarded a US destroyer for face-to-face negotiations. When they turned down an offer to keep the Quest but surrender the Americans, the pair were detained on the ship, the defense team argued.
The US navy then moved closer to the Quest, gunfire rang out, a pirate fired a rocket and navy SEAL commandos stormed the yacht, court papers say. Besides the four Americans, four of the pirates were killed. (AFP)